An introduction

Psychology is the study of our behavior and mental processes, using scientific methods to describe, explain, predict, and control behavior.

Two common misconceptions about psychology:

1. Psychology is just common sense.

Contrary to popular belief, psychology is not simply common sense laden with plenty of jargon to make simple concepts sound complicated. Psychology suffers from this misconception because concepts studied in psychology such as emotion, personality, intelligence etc are often intuitive to us. That is to say, each of us has an intuitive idea about what love is – why then should we reduce the study of love and attraction to such technical study? The problem is that common sense is not in fact, that common.

What is common sense? Defined using common sense, common sense would mean something that everyone agrees on without needing higher level processing. For example, if I say: I can’t go downstairs cos’ the lift isn’t working; you’d reply: Use your common sense, take the stairs! Common sense isn’t just restricted to how we use it in everyday conversations; it expands to encompass folk wisdom: for example, we all “know” that it’s better to be safe than sorry. But what of the common saying nothing ventured, nothing gained? When we notice a couple with very different personalities and hobbies, we attribute it to a case of opposites attract. But what of the saying that birds of the same feather flock together? It appears that folk “wisdom” has an explanation for everything, but only after the event has happened. Otherwise, the contradiction is clear. The point is, is common sense good sense?

Psychology employs empirical methods to test the hypotheses of common sense. This happens to be one reason why the study of psychology is interesting: it offers the possibility for us to challenge the “common sense” that has been accepted without question for centuries. For example, research has provided evidence against the claim that opposites attract (which by default lends weight to the claim that birds of the same feather flock together). We like people who are like us, and that explains why we are thrilled to find someone who shares the same birthday or number plate with us.

2. Psychology is only worth studying because it is interesting; otherwise it adds little value to our society.

I suspect this is also applied to philosophy as well because I used to hold these beliefs. But I feel the need to recognize the purpose of studying, because I subscribe to the belief that knowledge is only worth as much as it can be applied. Studying psychology is more than just interesting. Its findings hold profound implications for fields as diverse as neurobiology in helping blind patients to see; clinical psychology in the treatment of mental illnesses; economics and finance in decision making and risk taking; public policy in the use of choice architecture to elicit favorable behaviors, etc. (As for philosophy, I think the value in studying lies in the development of such cognitive abilities as reasoning, logic and critical thinking – such thinking skills can be applied anywhere.)

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